Wednesday, March 31, 2010

what sticks

What sticks in my throat is that God gets the credit but never the blame.

-- Mary Doria Russell, The Sparrow

Job’s wife told him to curse God and die, but he wouldn’t. “Shall we receive the good, and not the bad?” he said, and nothing more.

Then his friends came to comfort him, and they waited seven days for him to speak. When he spoke, it was more than they could bear. “The arrows of the Almighty are in me;” he said, “My spirit drinks their poison; the terrors of God are arrayed against me.” The Scripture says that Job spoke truly when he said this, for God was indeed the author of his grief and of his suffering. Flabbergasted, his friends fought with him, leaving us timeless texts in how not to counsel grief, until God had to come down and sort the whole thing out, this thing that God had started in the first place, and for the most unworthy of motives.

I sat with a woman by the deathbed of her daughter, whom she had put through a private school and assisted through college by the work of her hands. This mother had born three children to a shotgun marriage with a man who raped her, abused her, and then abandoned her after the sons grew up. The daughter was her youngest child.

“We’re with the Lord,” she says.

Where was the Lord when you were raped? I’m thinking.

“We accept the Will of God.”

And Whose Will is it, that we should watch our innocent children die?

“I know she’s going to a better place.”

I hope so, I’m thinking. A place not ruled by insecure middle-management deities, who put us to suffering to see how much we love them.

“She keeps me going, she’s my pride and my joy.”

Job’s wife is my confidant. I think this mother might have to curse in order to survive. Curse God and live.

But she doesn’t curse. She is grateful for what she has had, for a chance to love, and an opportunity to rise above adversity. Has she worked through her anger, or never admitted it? “I don’t know how I’ll get on without her,” she says. And this is what concerns me.

Some people need to rage. If she needs to rage, I can send her to Job, who drew up the grandest and most complete indictment of God’s universe. He cursed the day he was born. He named God as his persecutor. He summoned God to a courtroom, to give account. Job never gave up his demand for justice. If this was God’s will, then there had to be someone else up there to talk to. “I know that my advocate lives.”

Those who speak without irony of the “patience of Job” never read beyond the second chapter. There are forty other chapters. The story shows that you can’t just decide to “receive the bad,” merely because you received “the good.” It’s not that simple.

“Everything happens for a reason,” some say. You don’t have to be Christian, or a believer of the Book, to say it. It’s an instinctive expression of hope. We’ll get through this. There’s light at the end of the tunnel. Every cloud has a silver lining.

But when you’re grieving, there is no meaning to it. Your viscera have been torn out, and you have no strength, and you can’t stand up because there’s nothing to hold on to. You’re on your own, collapsed in the road, violated and unengaged and unattached.

Sooner or later, somehow, most of us find ourselves walking again, going somewhere, toward something, with someone. We’re heading in some direction or other, and the direction of our movement is its meaning. But the meaning comes from now, not then. We make the meaning now by moving again. And then we retroject that meaning: “Oh! That’s why it had to happen;” we say, or “So that was God’s purpose.” But it wasn’t the purpose, of God or anyone else. It’s the meaning of now, the stir of your blood, the tingling of your breath, your recovery and your survival. Sometimes we suffer before there is meaning again, but that doesn’t mean that the suffering had meaning. It proves that we make something out of nothing.

It’s not for me to direct this mother. I cannot make her rage, just because I would. If she starts to tend that way, I can name it, and show her the tradition of rage at divinity, the healing and the blessing that may come after. Is she in denial or in transcendence? I’ll have to observe her. In the meantime, she teaches me.

Saturday, March 27, 2010

these days

The best lack all conviction, while the worst
Are full of passionate intensity.

-- W. B. Yeats, “The Second Coming”

The book on us is that we lack intensity. The book of those whose opinion we care about.

There’s another book on us, of course. The book of those who say we are the devil’s spawn, godless, traitors, killers of what is Christian and American. But we don’t read that book. We don’t care about the opinions of those who have always metaphysically reviled us. They are to us buffoons. Unless they bring their guns. Then they are buffoons with guns.

The book that hurts us is the book of those with whom we would be solid. When people of color say they can’t trust us, because we lack passion and our solidarity is lukewarm, it staggers us. When they say we can’t be solid with them because we’re people of privilege, we feel ashamed. We don’t know from oppression, they say. If we did, we’d be as passionate as they are.

We’d like to say, we have the courage of our convictions. We’d like to say, we have studied the situation, we have risen above our location, we can see the struggle for justice from the height of our principles. We know where our loyalties should be.

And what good are you up there in your balloon? says the hurtful book. White people can’t jump, don’t know how to clap their hands, can’t sway without falling over. You lack rhythm, have left your bodies and lost your souls. Your truth is not incarnate.

I rise each morning in a particular place and time, to do work that gets my attention. Some days I am proud of what I have done. Then I’m tired, and I have to recreate myself. I go home. I read. I write. I look out the window. I meditate. In my own way, I pray. I go to sleep. If I don’t recreate myself, I can’t come back in the morning. Not honestly. I can fool myself for a while. My well-trained reflexes will continue to operate. Only the spiritually gifted will notice that the soul has gone out of my eyes.

I have a reasonable chance, on a given day, of fulfilling the prophet’s requirement. Today I might love kindness, act justly, and walk humbly with my God. If I fail today, I may succeed tomorrow. If I succeed today, it’s something. I can’t do everything. Part of humility is knowing how much I cannot do.

To our kinfolk of color we would extend the hand of fellowship. Welcome. We know you were unjustly treated. We know you deserved better. We have read your story, in books and in your eyes. We want for you to do well. That’s how we were raised.

We want for you to do well. To say such a thing sounds condescending, but not to say it is a sin. We want it in principle, because it is right that you should do well. We want it also in our bodies, to ease the sickness at the pit of our stomachs. We are nauseated by what our country did to you.

I don’t say that our pain is your pain, or its moral equivalent. But we would like you to know that we also hurt from injustice. We have trouble getting that across.

The hurtful book says we are privileged. I learn that, though I do not have all advantages, I am privileged because I am tall, and firstborn, and male, and born to people who valued education. I also learn that white folks are privileged because they are white.

It’s hard to get your mind around the thought of privilege when you’re not rich and you’re not powerful, and you’ve more or less barely survived. So perhaps I don’t deserve to have survived. I have been rescued a number of times, given several chances to succeed. For others it’s one strike and you’re out. Or none. To me it has seemed a hard struggle to get here, and here seems no place of eminence; but the little I have should perhaps be taken away, because I got it by unfair means, born as I was with fair skin, blue eyes, male sex and blond hair.

If you say I’m privileged, you’re saying I’ve got the things you want and deserve. Among those things is power, to determine my destiny and that of others. If I hold such power, I hold it therefore in trust. I should use it not in triumph but in doubt. I cannot be of single mind about it. Some of it can be given away, but not all. It’s hard to deploy one’s power if one feels unworthy to do so.

You may not recognize my struggle of discernment as passion. You may think I am dispassionate. And yes, I am dispassionate; I must disown the instinct of privilege, which is to grab and consume, and to make of others the means to my happiness. I must rise above entitlement and climb out of my native joy, before I can come to meet you.

So I don’t come to your story as you do. Yet I want to hear it, I want to take it in, I want to grow my nerves into it. If I learn your song, my passion will not be yours; it will be the passion of a person born elsewhere, who came to meet you. I will have learned it, and you will have to hear it from me, in my own accent and idiom, inflected with harmonies that my parents lovingly taught me. That’s the best I can do. It has to be good enough. It’s all the conviction I’ve got.

Sunday, March 21, 2010

brute material

All theologies, knowingly or not, are theologies of specific life-experiences.

-- Otto Maduro, “Liberation Theology”*

We must admit that Unitarian Universalism has a specific, sometimes alienating culture, and we must change it.

-- Rosemary Bray McNatt, “We Must Change”**

Marx would say that ideas of God are epiphenomenal. Which is to say, they are sparks flung out by clashes of brute material: ideas do not make history but are made by it. The god of rulers justifies their rule, while the god of those who are ruled consoles them in their oppression. Religion is the sword of the mighty, the opiate of the masses.

“The history of the world, my sweet,” sings Sweeney Todd, “is who gets eaten and who gets to eat.” The liberation theologians begin with Marx’s view of history, bottoms-up: theologies arise, they say, from specific locations in time and place, and answer the needs of those who live in those places. No theologian wants to think his ideas of God are mere gurgles in history’s gullet, so the liberationists choose one of God’s locations as the right one. God, they say, has taken a “preferential option for the poor,” adopting the location of the oppressed as Her own. But the Oppressed do not love their location; they want to change it. So when the God of liberation joins the poor, He must help them move out of Egypt and into the Promise. “Congratulations to the Poor! for they shall inherit.” But what they shall inherit is somewhere else.

Let’s say it again. Every theology has a social location. And every social location has a theology. When the Oppressed arrive at their Promise, they will take on the theology of their new location. They shall all be changed, and will no longer be the people whom God had preferred. Oppressed people want to become, in at least one respect, like liberals. They want to be autonomous. They want what liberals have – the physical, social and intellectual capital of autonomy. As oppressed people rise up and free themselves, with or without God’s help, everything will change for them.

Again. Every theology has a social location. The liberal church is not the church of everyone. Nor is the church of the oppressed for everyone. Liberals hope to be saved through each person’s affectional, intellectual and spiritual freedom. Oppressed people hope to be saved through communally enacted dreams of a better future. To liberals, a free mind is the holy of holies; to the oppressed, a committed heart. These priorities do not amount to the same thing. But priorities change as people change their location.

Again. Every theology has a social location. Every social location has a theology. So it’s not a sin to be socially located. Nor is it a virtue. But each theology, in its social location, is an occasion of sin; we are called to own our location and know its boundaries, to contain its deathly tendencies and to enhance its powers of life, knowing that if we stood in a different place we would believe differently, and knowing that we owe solidarity, regardless of their theology, to those who were born with a boot on their necks. We liberals, unlike other people of privilege, know that we owe such solidarity. We know it because we are highly educated, and because we inherit the Enlightenment with our education. Our ethic of solidarity is a product of our social location.

We white liberals will never be born with a boot on our necks. We missed that bus. People like me did not create black liberation, nor did we give to people of color such freedom as they have. Liberation belongs to those who need it and have struggled for it. At times we have been solid with them, and we owe such people our solidarity, but not because they’re liberals – many are not. We owe them solidarity because they have been badly treated and deserve better. When they have achieved the Promise of autonomy, when they choose their loves, their works and gods, and respect that choice in others; then and only then will some of them be liberals. But it’s not for me to say that they should become liberals. Liberated people are not obliged to love my songs and thoughts, or to vote my way in the next election, just because at times I was solid with them. Their only obligation will be to become, each of them, who they are. I am not the one to say who they are.

Again. Every theology has a social location. Liberal religion is a specific culture. Some like it. Some don’t like it. Some are at home in it, some are alienated from it. But being who you are is not a sin.

Harvard is a great university, so great that its name stands for excellence. Everyone aspiring to college, in a sense, wants to go to Harvard. But if everyone went to Harvard, then Harvard wouldn’t be the thing that makes everyone want to go there. So our world doesn’t really need for everyone to go to Harvard; what it needs is for Harvard to endure, so that talented people of many races, nationalities, beliefs and cultures can be educated there.

Unitarian Universalism is a great American religion. It could be larger and more influential than it is, but it will never be a religion for everybody. So America doesn’t need everyone to be a Unitarian or a Universalist. What America asks of us is to endure, so that people of talent and integrity, who reject both arrogant metaphysics and brute materialism, can continue to practice the third way of religion.

We will endure better, and spread our values more effectively, if we look more like America as it is becoming, and less like the society of Mayflower descendents we once were. We might have to diversify our musical choices, learn to permit enthusiasm, and apply our curiosity to the scriptures of America’s great religions. But I don’t want my church to “look like America” in its sexual ethics, or in its view of biblical authority. I don’t want a church that demeans the value of women, or the role of conscience in Revelation. These are not superficial matters. Liberal religion will always alienate somebody, but it doesn’t deserve to die on that account.

Perhaps one of the reasons we don’t spread our message very well is that we have lost our faith. Liberationist thinking has done such a number on us that we feel unworthy to be good. They tell us that our principles are mere rationalizations for our privilege. We remind ourselves that we are creatures of privilege, corrupted in our judgment, undeserving of what faint power we hold. But self-loathing is not a persuasive quality. If we could own our social location, claim our besetting sins and our besetting virtues, take responsibility for our errors and pride in our achievements, perhaps it would be easier to attract diverse communities to our fellowship. They don’t know, after all, why we look so sheepish and guilty. It’s a mystery to them.

Again. Every theology has a social location. We should learn from the liberationists that we liberals are not oppressed. We are, compared to many of our neighbors, privileged people – and the choices before us are the choices of privilege. I cannot become black, or gay, or female; but if it is true that my lack of such credentials amounts to power, then I should use that power without apology on behalf of my brothers and sisters. The problem is not that some are comparatively free. The problem is that so many are not.

*A New Handbook of Christian Theology, eds. Donald W. Musser & Joseph H. Price (Nashville, TN: Abingdon Press, 1992)

**UU World (Feb. 15, 2010)